(BaseballStL) – Overlooked in the exaltation of a division championship and the crushing despair of another NLCS loss is the subtle transformation of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The heroes in this late season run were unfamiliar names; rookies or players with limited experience, not the veterans fans have come to rely upon for another Lazarus-like run to a title.
Only Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina remain from the 2006 World Series champion. Only eight players on the 2014 roster were part of the improbable 2011 title team. How many will remain on this roster will return next year? Certainly not all.
Stars are born in the crucible of competition, when games matter most and heroics are hardest to achieve. Playoff teams will tell you that the game is quicker, the noise louder, the pressure greater the further they go. In a recent BaseballStL story on relief ace Seth Maness, he described the difficulty in just breathing normally in the pressure-packed moments of the playoff baseball. Not everyone can survive in that environment, much less thrive.
But a few did and they are the players who will lead the next generation of Cardinals to World Series contention. They were not familiar names last year and some of them spent time in the minors this year, only to explode on baseball’s biggest stage in October, baseball’s cruelest month.
Kolten Wong, who along with Matt Adams, tried to drag the slumping Redbirds across the finish line, is the biggest winner. Wong, Adams, Maness and Marco Gonzalez distinguished themselves as having the confidence and ability to perform under intense pressure that separates them from even the elite handful of players who even make it to the major leagues. They, along with Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Randal Grichuk and Matt Carpenter will be the future.
The emergence of the young players is important because the aging veterans who had been the franchise’s cornerstone are fading. Wainwright pitched on courage and guile and while he will remain a significant contributor going forward, he is the Chris Carpenter of the staff – the elder statesman who leads by example before fading into the twilight.
Molina is breaking down, a catcher’s fate that has been accelerated by overuse. Matt Holliday’s defense and lack of speed will become a greater issue as his offensive skills continue to fade. Though his 20 homers and late offensive surge carried the Redbirds for a while, those outbursts are becoming less frequent and less potent, spotlighting his $17 million salary and the talent of young players being wasted on the bench.
While sometimes frustrating to watch, the emergence of young players is a team’s catharsis, the rebirth of a franchise. The alternative example is the aging and feckless Philadelphia Phillies, a once-great team hobbled by injuries and the age-related erosion of skill.
Baseball is a game for not just young players, but young seasoned players who have been tested and who have succeeded. Until then, their skill is just potential, a word that means you aren’t very good right now but might be someday.
If it was painful to watch at times, it is the price paid for being a perennial contender. Until a player knows both the exaltation of hard-earned victory and the bitterness of defeat, he cannot have the confidence to carry him when all others doubt. And until we see what he does when it counts the most, we cannot judge whether he is Mr. October or Alex Rodriguez.
These Cardinals were lucky; not everyone gets to find out how he will do when it matters most. But as good as they may become, they will fade like those who wore the birds on the bat before them.
Time is undefeated.